Scrolling through some recent comments, my attention was caught by this one, posted by keiths:
Besides not panning out scientifically, intercessory prayer doesn’t even make theological sense.
An old OP on the topic:
So I checked out keiths’s OP, which describes the hypothetical case of a woman named Mary, suffering from a terminal illness, whose friends decide to pray for her. Keiths cuts to the chase:
The question is whether those prayers have any effect on God’s actions. Being an OmniGod [omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent – VJT], he will always do the right thing, without fail, regardless of whether anyone asks him to do so. How can prayer ever change what God does, if he always does the right thing in all circumstances?
In other words, is it ever possible that God is prepared to let Mary die, but decides to intervene simply because her family and friends pray for her recovery?
I’d like to make a few brief comments, just to get the discussion rolling:
1. It’s a good idea to read Aquinas first, before writing about intercessory prayer
Why? Because if you read what Aquinas says on the subject (Summa Theologica II-II, q. 83, art. 2), you’ll find that he’s familiar with the standard objections to the practice. Aquinas’s justification for intercessory prayer is not that it changes God’s will – indeed, he insists elsewhere that the will of God is unchangeable, citing the Bible to support his view, and deftly handling Scriptural passages which seem to imply the contrary. Rather, Aquinas maintains intercessory prayer is appropriate, because God wants us to obtain certain goods as a result of praying for them. In other words, intercessory prayer is purely for our benefit:
Reply to Objection 1. We need to pray to God, not in order to make known to Him our needs or desires but that we ourselves may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God’s help in these matters.
Reply to Objection 2. As stated above, our motive in praying is, not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that, by our prayers, we may obtain what God has appointed.
Reply to Objection 3. God bestows many things on us out of His liberality, even without our asking for them: but that He wishes to bestow certain things on us at our asking, is for the sake of our good, namely, that we may acquire confidence in having recourse to God, and that we may recognize in Him the Author of our goods...
2. Is there only one right thing for God to do?
Keiths assumes that God, being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, “will always do the right thing, without fail, regardless of whether anyone asks him to do so.” But that assumes there is only one right thing to do – in other words, that if God intervenes and heals Mary, it is because He is morally obliged to do so. Christians would dispute this claim.
3. Nevertheless, keiths’s final question is a valid one
But even if prayer on someone else’s behalf doesn’t change God’s will, it seems we can still meaningfully ask: would God have helped that person, even if we hadn’t prayed for them?
Now, the first thing that needs to be said is that keiths’s argument wouldn’t work against a predestinationist, who would say that God predestines not only the end, but also the means: in other words, He decrees that a person in need shall receive His assistance, precisely because He has already decreed that we shall pray for that person in need. So the question of what would have happened if we hadn’t prayed for that person never arises. And there are some who would argue that Aquinas himself was a predestinationist (see here and here for instance – but on the other hand, see here).
But let’s assume that our choices are not predestined, and that we possess genuine, libertarian free will. In that case, someone who prays for a person in need might not have done so – which prompts the question asked by keiths: would God have still helped that person, even if there were nobody praying for them?
If we answer “yes” to keiths’s question in all cases, then our prayers really don’t make a difference to anything happening in the world, and we can never say that something good would not have happened without our prayers. But if there are at least some cases where the answer is “no,” then that implies that God was willing to let Mary die, if nobody had prayed for her recovery. Or if God had some independent reason for wanting to let Mary live, then maybe there was some other person suffering from terminal illness, whom God was willing to let die.
Given the choice between saying that things would always work out the same, even without our prayers, and saying that there are some people whom God would not have rescued from death without our prayers, I think a religious believer should take the second option. To suppose that prayer makes absolutely no difference to the way things turn out is contrary to the whole message of the Bible. Nor do I think that a God Who would allow some people to die if they are not prayed for is a monster, on that account. That only follows if God has a moral obligation to end all death and suffering immediately. For my part, I am not persuaded that He has any such obligation.
I shall stop here, and invite readers to weigh in on keiths’s dilemma. What do you think?